CICF News / 2013 / July / News Post
July 19, 2013
Landing A Blow To A Dreadful Disease

Karen Campbell stands in the middle of the gym, Everlast boxing gloves held high as she moves toward the speed ball. Campbell isn’t your stereotypical boxer. She isn’t sporting rock-hard biceps or abs, or anything else, and her nose shows no signs of ever being broken. What Campbell really looks like is what she is – a 61 year-old grandmother in an "Eat My Dust" t-shirt, who, in this case, is afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease. After moving to the full-size punching bag, Campbell shifts, turns her body, then launches a solid right hand jab. The punch lands, but doesn’t inflict any real damage; today, she’s just working out in the gym. But in that split second, Campbell’s ability to combine the movement, strength and coordination necessary to simply throw the punch makes her a winner.

Karen Campbell prepares to land a blow to a punching bag at one of her two weekly workouts at Rock Steady Boxing.
A focus on ability - rather than limits - is central to Rock Steady Boxing's approach to working with boxers with Parkinson's Disease.
 Bea Fink, Rock Steady's oldest pugilist, celebrates her 92nd birthday alongside her trainers. (Photo courtesy of Rock Steady Boxing.)
 Rock Steady boxers work out in groups, building both muscles and a community of support.

Two years ago, Karen Campbell was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Her diagnosis came just three weeks after a friend of hers had passed away from Parkinson’s. That connection proved to be valuable for Karen, because that friend had been a part of creating a special organization that aimed to helped people fight Parkinson’s by quite literally throwing punches to slow the disease.

At that organization, Rock Steady Boxing, Parkinson’s patients wrap their hands, pull on boxing gloves and throw punches at speed bags. Parkinson’s is a progressive disease that directly affects the central nervous system. For most patients, early symptoms impact movement including tremors, rigidity, shaking and loss of movement, but dementia and depression are also symptoms. At Rock Steady Boxing, Parkinson’s patients fight to slow the progression of the disease as they clobber punching bags, run laps and often step into the boxing ring.

From Campbell’s point of view, her twice-weekly visits to Rock Steady Boxing, an organization supported by both Indianapolis Foundation and CICF donor-advised fund grants, have had a real impact. She increased her balance, restored her ability to rotate her upper body – which allows her to keep driving safely – and improved her balance. It’s also made it possible for her to regularly get down on the floor with her grandchildren.

“This is the positive thing I can do to fight the disease,” says Campbell, who also fought cancer before getting her Parkinson’s diagnosis. “It’s truly life-changing.”

A Prosecutor, Parkinson’s & A Personal Connection

Rock Steady Boxing began in 2006, founded by former Marion County Prosecutor, Scott C. Newman, who had been utilizing boxing to manage his early-onset Parkinson’s for a few years. He had seen a dramatic shift in his own health and wanted to share those results with others. The unique blend of agility, endurance and strength training appears, anecdotally, to be slowing and, on occasion, reversing symptoms among Parkinson’s patients.

After adding a former World Champion boxer, Kristy Rose Follmar, as head trainer plus another certified trainer whose own husband is battling Parkinson’s, Christine Timberlake, the program expanded rapidly. With more and more boxers joining, Rock Steady Boxing also refined their program, ensuring that they meet the needs of women, men, old, young and individuals with a wide range of progression and symptoms. Currently, they have four levels of ability and boxers from age 42 to 92 years.

Today, the organization is led by Executive Director Joyce Johnson, who previously worked with another young organization, Starfish Initiative. Johnson came to the organization with a mission of strengthening their sustainability efforts and building on their successes. But she also has a very personal connection to the organization and her job: Johnson’s mother had lived with Parkinson’s.

“I don’t know that my mother ever would have boxed,” says Johnson. “But there are 20-some different symptoms that affect people different ways – and knowing that would have made a big difference to me. This is an opportunity for me to help others appreciate the struggles that people with Parkinson’s are going through, things I wish I had known.”

A Community Hub

Parkinson’s patients find out about Rock Steady Boxing from several sources. Word of mouth is a significant source of referrals, as are stories in the media. Increasingly, though, neurologists are writing “Rock Steady Boxing” on prescription pads, as they see many clients who box significantly slowing the progress of the disease. Coupled with early research results from the University of Indianapolis’ School of Physical Therapy, the anecdotal impact is attracting attention from other Parkinson’s-focused organizations.

Rock Steady Boxing recently introduced a three-day training program for other groups that want to utilize their model to fight Parkinson’s. Participants have come from as close as the JCC of Indianapolis (where Karen Campbell hopes to attend a third weekly class) and as far as Australia.

Slowing the disease is at the center of Rock Steady’s mission, but the organization also seeks to build a supportive community around their boxers. Instead of offering a circle of chairs and introspective conversation, as in a support group, Rock Steady gives people a chance to connect around achievement and activity.

The value of that supportive approach is clear when one boxer, Mary Yeaman, enthusiastically tells other boxers, trainers, and the Executive Director about another boxer’s pride at getting his Mini Marathon and 5K medal as one of the 30 Rock Steady Boxers who ran or walked in the event. “At night, Bob sleeps with it under his pillow,” she says, beaming. Yeaman has been boxing since 2007 and is also a dedicated volunteer.

The organization has also out-grown their existing space which they were able to use and outfit with help from Impact 100 and Peak Performance Fitness. This summer, they will move to a new, 12,800-square foot location that will increase their workout space and include a larger boxing ring. The started the process of moving earlier this week. With the goal of building an information and support hub for the Parkinson’s community, the new location will also have office space for Rock Steady, the Parkinson’s Awareness Association of Central Indiana and the Cornerman Lounge, a place for caregivers, researchers and workshop participants.

With the new facility, Rock Steady aims to forge new connections and expand their impact. But their top goal remains clear - they are providing Parkinson's patients with a chance to do something active and positive to regain control of their health.

“Most of them feel like they’re fighting for their lives,” says Joyce Johnson. “When they come early in their disease, they feel that they are doing something to delay or reverse their disease. We're here to support that.”

Read more about the impact of Indianapolis Foundation grants.